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Innovating Math Education: Highlights from IES Learning Acceleration Challenges

A teacher and students work on math problems on a white board

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) held two Learning Acceleration Challenges during the 2022–23 school year, designed to incentivize innovation in math and science. The Math Prize sought school-based, digital interventions to significantly improve math outcomes, specifically in fractions, for upper elementary school students with or at risk for a disability that affects math performance. An unprecedented number of students are performing below grade level in core academic subjects according to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In response to this problem, the grand prize required interventions to reach an effect size equal to or exceeding 0.77 on a broad measure of math achievement, the NWEA® MAP™ Growth math assessment. The challenge included two phases: In Phase 1, intervention providers submitted information on their interventions and research plans for implementing and testing their interventions under routine conditions. In Phase 2, selected research teams (finalists) were given $25,000 to implement and test their interventions with a shot at receiving the grand prize.

There were four submissions scored by a panel of judges during Phase 1. Two teams were selected to proceed to Phase 2 of the challenge to implement their intervention in schools: The DRUM (Digital Rational Number) Intervention and the ExploreLearning’s Reflex + Frax intervention. These two interventions were implemented in schools between November 2022 and April 2023 and participating students completed the NWEA MAP Growth math assessment before and after implementation. At the completion of Phase 2, the judging panel scored the Phase 2 submissions according to a rigorous set of criteria that included impact (as evaluated by a randomized controlled trial), cost effectiveness, scalability, and sustainability. Based on the scores received by the finalists, the panel did not recommend awarding any Phase 2 Prizes.

We recognize this challenge was an ambitious and rapid effort to improve math achievement. With the knowledge gained from this challenge, we hope to continue to design opportunities that encourage transformative, innovative change within education. While disappointing, these results shed light on some of the challenges of targeting ambitious improvements in student math achievement:

  • The implementation hurdles experienced by both teams reinforce the difficulties of conducting research in schools, especially in the current post-pandemic era climate. In the present circumstances, many schools face extra strains that may make it challenging to implement new interventions, as is required during an RCT.
  • It has historically been, and continues to be, difficult to create accelerated growth in math achievement for students who are with or at risk for disabilities that affect math performance. An improvement in line with the challenge’s 0.77 effect size criterion for the grand prize would substantially lessen the average achievement gap between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers—and would be no small feat!
  • Barriers still exist to implementation of a technology-based intervention. For intervention developers, the cost and time required to create a digital intervention can be very large. For schools, the necessary infrastructure and acceptance of digital interventions is not always present.
  • Researching interventions within schools takes a lot of time and resources. Sometimes getting answers to our most pressing educational problems takes time, despite the best efforts of those involved to accelerate this process. The results of this competition underscore the continued need for research to support the significant difficulties of this population of learners.

Thank you to all who participated. We would also like to thank Luminary Labs, the contractor providing support for the IES Learning Acceleration Challenges and the two strong partners they included in the work: NWEA and Abt Associates. We appreciate NWEA’s support in conducting the evaluation of the effects of the intervention on the MAP Growth assessment and Abt Associates for their technical assistance during the Phase 2 implementation. We also appreciate all their work to collect and summarize data to understand what we can learn from the challenges and recommendations from other open innovation initiatives to inform future similar work at IES.

If you have an intervention or an idea for an intervention that could accelerate math achievement for students with or at risk for disabilities, you are encouraged to learn more about additional funding opportunities at IES, and contact Sarah Brasiel, program officer for NCSER’s STEM topic area.

This blog was written by Britta Bresina, NCSER program officer.